The Princes of Qawwali Gali


Karachi’s Qawwali Gali (Qawwali Lane) is the ground zero of an ancient but vibrant art form.


Tonight I am very excited and quite honoured to present a wonderful contribution from the poet Sophia Pandeya.  Sophia’s heritage is a story in itself and will be told in another forum pretty soon.  As for her poetry, characterised by a distinct lightness of  being– both earthy and sensual– is some of the most evocative and attractive I’ve come across in a long time.

Qawwali, Music of the Mystics

Qawwali, originating from the word Qaul or utterance, expresses yearning for union with the Beloved through ecstatic music and poetry. The protagonists of this art form are invariably male, however the persona they embody is always that of a woman longing for her Beloved. This blurring of the lines between sacred and sensual desire along with hypnotic beats and dazzling vocals has been the driving force behind Qawwali’s popularity among the masses for several centuries.

After the subcontinent’s partition in 1947 along religious lines Karachi’s “Qawwali Gali” (Qawwali Lane) became home to many musical gharanas or families, most of whom moved here in the 1950s and 1960s from India. Every second person in this neighborhood claims to belong to an authentic gharana. Their interconnected lineages all lead back to Hazrat Amir Khusro. The father of Qawwali, as he is often called, was a 13th Century Sufi musician, poet, scholar and spiritual disciple of the Sufi saint Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi. It was Hazrat Amir Khusro who trained the original twelve Qawwal Bacchay or child singers. The qawwals in Karachi claim that Ustad Tanras Khan Sahab, their common ancestor, was a teacher of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and a direct descendant of Amir Khusro’s principal disciple Mian Sâmad.

These recordings are of intimate gatherings, one of which is in a private home with Rauf Saami, the eldest son of living legend Ustad Naseeruddin Saami. The Saami Brothers belong to one of the most renowned and authentic Qawwal bachcha gharanas recognized for its repertoires, taans and alaaps. Rauf is the grandson of the world renowned Munshi Raziuddin Qawwal after whom a street is named here.

The first clip here is of Rauf Saami Qawwals’ rendition of Mun Kunto Maula a song composed by Amir Khusro in praise of Hazrat Ali. This is a Qaul Tarana, a wonderful hybrid form; Qaul, meaning the sayings of the holy Prophet and Tarana, from the syllables that are clearly parallel to similar condensations in Indian classical music. Man Kunto Maula has been sung countless times by various groups, so Qawwals desirous of making an impression on their audiences introduce variations of rhythm, raga and add verses to give their rendition a unique stamp.

Mun Kunto Maula

Ghar Nari Ganwari also composed by Amir Khusro; here Hindawi( the predecessor of modern Hindi/Urdu) is the dominant language rather than farsi.

Let the gossip girls say what they will,

I stole a glance from the eyes of Nizam.

Ghar Nari Ganwari

Chaap Tilak Sab Cheeni is one of Amir Khusro’s most popular qawwalis ever. Reading the lyrics gives you an inkling of why it is a prime example of this heterodox tradition:

You stole my being in just a glance

Unlocked mysteries in just a glance

Gave me to drink the wine of love

You intoxicate in just a glance

My fair wrists with green bangles,

Have been captured in just a glance

I give my life to you, Oh my cloth-dyer,

You’ve dyed me in yourself, in just a glance

I give my whole life to you Oh, Nizam,

You’ve made me your bride, in a glance

Chaap Tilak Sab Cheeni

Chashmé Masté is another gem by Amir Khusro:


O, wondrous ecstatic eyes! O wondrous long locks!

O, wondrous wine worshipper! O mischief sowing Beloved!


He, wondrous in his heedless cruelty

I, wondrous in my abject supplication!

Chashme Maste

The fifth clip, Phool Rahi Sarson Sakal Bun with Rauf Saami Qawwals also by Hazrat Amir Khusro. The lines paint a vivid picture:


The yellow mustard blooms in every field,

Mango buds click open, flame of the forest trees blossom,

The koel chirps from branch to branch,

And the fair maiden bedecks herself

The gardener-girls have brought bouquets,

With assorted flowers in arrangements,

Devotees arrive, bouquets in hand,

To Nizamuddin’s doorstep,

But *Shokh Rung, who had promised to come,

Hasn’t turned up – its been many years.

Playful Color i.e Hazrat Nizamuddin


Phool Rahi Sarson Sakal Bun

The second set of recordings are from a qawwali at T2f. This intimate venue is a gathering space of minds and hearts founded by the visionary Sabeen Mahmud who was tragically assassinated in April of 2015. The qawwals are Subhan, Bilal and Hilal Ahmed Nizami.  Their style is steeped in careful attention to raagdari, or adherence to classical forms. My particular favorite, a qawwali steeped in the sweet cadences of the poorab ang ki thumri epitomizes the heterodox nature of the form. Torey Damanwa lagi Maharaja is dedicated to Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti of Ajmer also known as Gharib Nawaz or “Benefactor of the Poor”Here he is also is also invoked as “Sab Nâthan ké Nâth” or Lord of the Nâths. This is a fascinating glimpse of a liminal Sufi tradition that links with the Nâth Siddha traditions of Rajasthan.

Torey Damanwa Lagi Maharaja

The last clip is another interpretation of Mun Kunto Maula, worth noticing that although both qawwals embellish this qawwali with different ragas ultimately they come back to the all important syllables of the Tarana. the elevation of meaning condensed into sound being the direct result of the influence the Indian classical tradition of Dhrupad.

Mun Kunto Maula

It should be noted that these rival qawwali parties are actually related to each other! Rauf’s grandfather Munshi Raziuddin formed a qawwali party called Manzoor Niazi & Brothers, along with his cousins, Bahauddin Qawwal and Manzoor Niazi. This ensemble lasted until 1966. After 1966, Munshi Raziuddin turned formed his own Qawwali party, and was successful until his death. Munshi Raziuddin was succeeded by his sons, Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad, who perform as Fareed Ayaz Qawwal and are very popular. Today I am very happy to share some music from their equally talented but relatively undiscovered cousins.



Sophia Pandeya is an Asian-American poet, writer and artist who was born in Karachi in 1964.  Sophia writes in both English and Urdu, and her poetry has been translated into Bengali as well.  She believes in a poetry that transcends linguistic, cultural, temporal, geographical and metaphysical borders. Her writing has been anthologized worldwide, in both print and online journals including Poetry International Rotterdam, The Adirondack Review,The Daily O, Aaj, BlazeVOX, Cactus Heart, Askew Poetry, Bank Heavy Press, Spilled Ink, Lantern Journal, Convergence ,  Antiphon Poetry UK, The Sunflower Collective, AntiSerious & many other publications. Peripheries, is her critically acclaimed debut collection of poetry, published in September 2015 by Cyberhex Press. Links to her published works and blog can be found on her site:  She tweets @SophiaPandeyaphoto


4 thoughts on “The Princes of Qawwali Gali

  1. There are parallels with other religions where the beloved could be a divine presence (eg. Songs of Solomon) and poetry or verse written about such a relationship. I prefer very human beloveds I must say!

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